Saturday, May 03, 2008

Tomorrow's Sermon--"Being Gifts"

I hope that anyone reading this tonight (Saturday, April 3) isn't from my congregation, because that means they'll be getting a double dose of sermonizing. I posted another sermon recently on God as Giver and this one is the follow-up to that one. It's on spiritual gifts. Hope it provides some food for mind and heart. Here it is:

“Being Gifts”
1 Corinthians 12:1 – 26

Introduction—giving what God has given

Now you may not know it by just looking at me, but I don’t know much about cars. Really! Let me tell you a story, just in case you need me to prove my point. Though I’m guessing you probably believe me and don’t need the convincing!

Almost a year ago our car began giving us some trouble. It wouldn’t start when we turned the key. In fact, it wouldn’t do anything when we turned the key. Once, when we were supposed to go into Saint John for an appointment, our car refused to start in our driveway. So I called Ronnie Sullivan. Ron and Gail lived close and I figured he probably knew more about cars than me. He came over, examined our engine carefully, spent time going over different options, and eventually was able to get the car going. At first just getting a boost seemed to do the trick. That didn’t last. Ronnie thought it was either the battery or possibly the fuel pump. It turned out to be the fuel pump.

When our car wouldn’t start, I needed someone else to help. This is because I know virtually nothing about cars. I’m the kind of person who, if I ever found myself stranded on the side of the road unable to get my car started, would open the hood, look at the engine and hope against hope that I would see a big, brightly coloured OFF/ON button! So I need someone else who really knows what to look for under the hood of our car. Thankfully Ronnie was available to give his time, knowledge, and experience—and in giving these things, he gave himself to help me.

A few weeks ago we talked about how everything we have is sheer gift, given us by God the ultimate Giver; how we do not deserve the gifts he gives; and how as a result we are called to become good givers ourselves. Now this week we’re going to elaborate on that last point: what it means to become good givers. Specifically, I want to talk about is spiritual gifts. We’ll see that it’s about giving to others what God has given to us. And hopefully at the end of all this we will see that it’s not so much about what gifts we have as it is what gifts we are.

God gives us all spiritual gifts

I have a close friend whose son will soon be five years old. So he and his wife are now looking into educational options. Their son is also exceptionally bright, and is already doing grade three reading and math, so they have understandable concerns about how he will take to the public school system. Friends at their church who are teachers have already told them that the public system isn’t going to know what to do with him! We could easily say, then, that this little boy is gifted.

Not every child is gifted in this sense. Not every boy and girl is this advanced in their skills and abilities. Not every four year old boy and girl is capable of reading at a grade three level. So we call such children gifted. The problem is that sometimes we take that term—gifted—and apply it in ways that are inappropriate.

In other words, when we hear the word gifted, we usually hear the word “exceptional.” Or we hear some people but not me. “Sure,” you think, “Some people can work at an advanced level, but I’m average. I’m not gifted.”

So then we apply this logic to the notion of spiritual gifts. People hear “spiritual gifts” and think that this term only applies to a select few, perhaps the spiritually elite of the church. They think of spiritual giftedness in the same way that we think of a gifted child, as the exception rather than the rule. But this isn’t how Scripture sees it.

We read from 1 Corinthians 12 this morning. And there Paul lists some spiritual gifts. He does the same in Ephesians 4 and Romans 12. These lists of gifts in Scripture are not exhaustive. In other words, there are spiritual gifts that God can give to his people that are not listed here. For instance, I don’t see listed in any of these passages the gift of music—and, no, singing does not count as speaking in tongues! But certainly we would include music as a spiritual gift. This just means that if you find yourself scanning these Scriptures and don’t see anything you think might be your spiritual gift, it doesn’t mean you don’t have one; it just means Paul didn’t mention it.

This means that every Christian—every person who has accepted Christ as Lord and confesses him with their lips and lives—has a spiritual gift. This is the rule and there are no exceptions. That means each of us is gifted! So if you are born again and trust in God as your redeemer, you have a spiritual gift, whether you know what it is or not.

Spiritual gifts are simply the unique ways God has made it possible for each of us to serve one another, to give ourselves to one another in love, for the purpose of growing in Christ. God has made you to serve those around you in a way that is uniquely you. Your specific combination of passions, interests, talents, experiences, and personality all come together to make your unique giftedness. It’s not just about what you have. Who you are is a gift.

God only gives the gifts we need

How many of you remember the comic strip by Gary Larson called The Far Side? I remember seeing one once that showed a huge group of penguins. Now of course all of these penguins looked the same. And right in the middle of the cartoon one of these penguins was standing up, holding his little wings in the air, and singing at the top of his lungs, “I gotta be me!” This poor penguin, though he looked exactly like all the others, wanted desperately to be unique, to be different, to be distinct from the crowd around him.

As we can see in our passage, Paul tells us there are a variety of gifts and activities given us by God. Paul makes this quite clear. Also clear is the fact God gives these gifts according to his will and purposes. We’re not the ones who determine our gifts: “All these [gifts] are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses,” Paul says in v.11. Earlier he says “there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” God decides who gets what gifts.

Sometimes we don’t like people who are different. From a very young age we learn to exclude people because of their differences—because of how they differ from us. We learn to distinguish, and we learn to discriminate. We form cliques and sub-groups. And I’m guessing school is pretty much the same—that kids are still organized according to the groups into which they fit.

And sometimes we don’t like being different. From a very young age we learn to conform, to try and fit in so that we will be included. We minimize our differences, and often what makes us unique, what makes us us, so that others will accept us.

When either of these attitudes infects a church, it’s a sickening sight. It was happening at Corinth. Some were saying, arrogantly, that there were people in the church who weren’t needed—the eye was saying to the hand, “I don’t need you”—and some were saying that they weren’t needed—“Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.”

But Paul undercuts both attitudes: any attitude of arrogance or superiority that looks at others and says, “I don’t need you!” and any attitude of inferiority or insecurity that looks at others and says, “They don’t need me.” Neither attitude is scriptural.

Now before I found myself in need of Ronnie’s help with our car, I might not have considered his skills and gifts that important. It’s possible that I might have thought myself superior—I have, after all, many years of theological education under my belt! Or even as he was helping me I might have lamented my own inability when it comes to cars. I might have found myself envious rather than grateful, wishing that I had his gift instead of whatever gift or gifts I have. Neither of these reactions to someone else’s skills is a good one.

But while I definitely am not the sort of person you ask over to help fix your car, the next time Ronnie can’t get any sleep because he just can’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity or because he’s particularly distressed about that whole free will-predestination conundrum, I’ll be there!

Whatever the particularities of your personality, your history, experiences, your life, you are a gift to those around you—and you are as needed as anyone else in the body of Christ. And whatever you may think of those around you, however their personality, their habits, their quirks may rub you the wrong way, they are a gift to you. We need one another precisely because of our differences. God has given us the spiritual gifts we need to grow in Christ. That is to say, we need one another to grow in Christ.

God ultimately gives us one another

I was having coffee with another pastor this past week and we were talking about spiritual gifts, and he said something that has stuck with me. He said that spiritual fruit is the fuel for the spiritual gifts. And in a way, this speaks to God’s reason for giving us spiritual gifts.

Spiritual fruit is about having the character of Jesus—about becoming more Christ-like. We need to have both the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. God gives us the gifts of the Spirit so that we can help one another follow Christ. It’s how we build one another up and encourage one another. The purpose of the gifts is Christ-centered. Put another way, we are called to support each other in becoming more Christ-like.

James Packer puts it this way: “For Paul it is only through Christ, in Christ, and by learning of and responding to Christ, that anyone is ever edified. So spiritual gifts must be defined in terms of Christ as actualized powers of expressing, celebrating, displaying, and thus communicating Christ in one way or another, either by word or deed.”

As someone who plays a little guitar, I can improve my skills and my playing to a certain degree on my own. I can study and increase my understanding of music. But nothing makes a better musician than playing with other musicians. So when I practice with the worship team, I learn things that I could never learn on my own. Not to mention the fact that the music sounds better with more people playing!

I might be able to grow as a follower of Jesus on my own to a certain extent, but I can only become more fully mature as a follower of Jesus when I practice with other Christians. You’ve heard the saying about couples, “They make beautiful music together”? The same is true of Christians working together to follow Jesus.

If one of you encourages me in my walk with Christ, in the way that God enables you to do so, the gift you have given me is you. By helping me follow Christ, you are being a gift to me. That’s what spiritual gifts are ultimately about: giving ourselves to one another. Preparing for today’s message, I was reading a commentary on our passage from Paul. One of the things the author said really gets to the heart of what this is about. He said, “It is not so much a matter of having a gift as of being a gift.”

God gives us spiritual gifts; and in so doing he gives us to one another, you to me and me to you. These spiritual gifts are not only given by God, they are empowered by God’s Spirit; they are only effective because of God. This means it’s not about congratulating ourselves on whatever gifts we have, but being thankful for the gifts we are and the gifts we have in one another. Being spiritual gifts is about being Christ to one another; the purpose of these gifts is to build up the body of Christ.

To sum up, the source of these gifts is God; their power is from the Spirit; and their purpose is to lead us and others closer to Jesus. We are given to one another so that we might be more fully given over to Jesus and his kingdom. And it is because these gifts are embodied in specific people that it is, as I said, more about being gifts than having gifts. This means you can’t separate the gift from the person.

Conclusion—imitating the Giver by being gifts

In his book Free of Charge Miroslav Volf says this: “In and of itself, no particular thing in the world is a gift. We do have so-called gift shops, full of all sorts of little things we usually give to friends and acquaintances. But things sitting on the store shelf are not gifts. Just like any other thing, an item from that store becomes a gift when you buy it and give it to someone else. A gift is a social relation, not an entity or an act in itself. It is an event between people.”

Take a moment and look around you. Imagine each of the people around you as gifts—as gifts precisely in their uniqueness, because of how they are different from you—and ask yourself, “Who here has been a gift to me and how? Who here has helped me follow Christ, has helped me in my faith?” And then take another moment and ask yourself, “How can I be a gift to these people? How can I help someone else follow Christ better? How can I help someone in their walk of faith?” Knowing how you are a spiritual gift begins by asking such questions.

One of the practical consequences of thinking through spiritual gifts is considering how well our present church structures and ministries allow people opportunity to be the gifts they are and to use the gifts they have. In traditional church culture, this is how it usually goes: there are specific non-negotiable ministries and programs (Sunday school, youth group, Bible study, etc.) and so we try and find people to fit the positions needed to run these programs.

But what if ministries and programs were instead organized according to people’s spiritual gifts in the church? One of the characteristics of a healthy church according to Natural Church Development is a gift-oriented ministry. The notion here is to say, well, we have some people gifted in this area so how can we create a ministry opportunity for them and help prepare them to serve more effectively? In this model, programs and ministries are defined by who people are not simply by what we need them to do.

Such an approach to ministry, to church life, to following Jesus together as a community, does a much better job at honouring the unique ways God has made each of us. It makes ministry more about relationships than activities. It grounds our identity as a church more securely in the sovereignty of God by basing what we do on what he has given us. It helps us recognize more clearly our need for one another because the spiritual gifts are given, as Paul says, “for the common good.”

And ultimately to recognize the distinct ways God has enabled us to serve, how it is that we are gifts to each other, is what it means to honour God the ultimate Giver who has not only given us to one another but has also given himself. Today we receive these gifts, the bread and the cup, as we celebrate that God, in his infinite mercy and out of his abundant grace, has given us his Son, Jesus Christ, and that in doing so has given us life. May we, in being good stewards of the life we have been given, also be gifts to one another.

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